Out of work, his shoulders aching from repeated surgeries, Lucky Johnson was so upset by what he saw as racial discrimination at his former employer, Lockheed Martin Corp., that he wanted to write to President Clinton.

One night at 3:30 a.m., his wife woke him up to say she had seen him suffer enough and she wanted to help him write the letter. While all they got in return was a perfunctory note from a presidential aide, Johnson said the tears and prayers that went into the letter led him to take up the issue with his minister one Sunday in 1997.

"I said, 'Well, are there any others?' " recalled Earl Moore, pastor at Atlanta's West End Seventh-Day Adventist Church. "They said, 'Oh, yes, just about every African American in the plant has been discriminated against in one way or another.' "

So began a process that led to the filing in May of a pair of lawsuits in which 11 workers accused Lockheed of racial discrimination in pay, treatment and promotions at the company's airplane factory in this Atlanta suburb. Backed by findings last fall from the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of probable discrimination at the plant, the workers seek class-action status to represent more than 700 African Americans at Marietta and other Lockheed Martin locations around the country.

Suddenly, a company led by engineers and accustomed to dealing with generals is under attack from civil rights leaders and famed litigator Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. The conflict could not have come at a worse time, as the Bethesda-based defense contractor is already laboring to restore its pinstriped, patriotic image in the wake of financial missteps, political setbacks and the indignity of paying a multimillion-dollar fine to settle government charges that it transferred satellite technology to China.

The potential for further political embarrassment is daunting to Lockheed Martin, which depends on the government for most of the $26 billion in business it does every year. Cochran has begun talking with the Congressional Black Caucus and promised to use his celebrity to draw attention to the case.

"Jeez, this is the last thing they need," said Brett Lambert, a defense industry consultant at DFI International. "At the very least, it's a distraction."

At worst, the suits suggest that Lockheed Martin turned its back on ugly working conditions in Marietta--a plant where workers already feared for its future, in a town already tainted by a history of racial strife.

"It was like a bunch of country boys that weren't going to accept nothing you did or nothing you said," said Johnson, who hopes to qualify as one of the class members but is not named in either of the suits.

Because Georgia courts prohibit parties from talking about potential class-action lawsuits, Lockheed Martin officials have been restricted from commenting about allegations in the case.

But in its formal response, filed June 26 in federal court in Atlanta, Lockheed said the EEOC had refused repeated requests to divulge the evidence on which it based its findings. The company also argued that the charges of discrimination misstated individual cases, lacked specifics and failed to identify the white employees who allegedly received better treatment.

Local 709 of the International Association of Aerospace Workers is also a target of the lawsuits, and the union's president, B.W. "Wayne" Myrick, said many of its 3,200 members believe the lawsuits threaten the very existence of the plant. Workers feel especially vulnerable to the negative publicity, he said, because the Marietta plant has already been the focus of so many of the company's problems.

A Series of Setbacks

Lockheed produces two aircraft in its Marietta factory: the C-130J military transport plane and the F-22 fighter jet. The C-130J suffered cost overruns that surprised corporate leadership and helped cause Lockheed Martin's failures to meet financial goals last year, which sent its stock tumbling and led to a management purge.

The F-22 faced a funding attack in Congress last fall, exposing how far Lockheed Martin's stature on Capitol Hill had fallen. A rebuilt Washington lobbying office helped get the program restored.

Then the company considered moving the F-22 production line to another factory, in Texas, to help save money. While Lockheed ultimately announced that such a move would cost too much "at this point in time," Assistant Air Force Secretary Lawrence Delaney said recently that the Pentagon is actively exploring the option and that the location of the production line "is an open question."

In addition, the Marietta plant has suffered more than 2,000 layoffs since last summer--reducing its total employment to about 7,500. In January it was demoted from its status as a stand-alone company to a subsidiary of the Texas operation.

But while the lawsuits hit the plant after an especially rough run, some workers said the racial climate has been tense through good times and bad.

Pastor Moore said he was surprised by the accusations because he had always thought Lockheed, which has occupied the Marietta plant since 1951, provided a good work environment by adhering to federal contracting standards.

The town of Marietta itself has a painful racial history, as Moore and others pointed out. It is the site of the notorious 1915 lynching of Jewish businessman Leo Frank, who allegedly raped a young girl. It is the hometown of former Georgia governor Lester Maddox, who gained notoriety in the 1960s for handing out pick handles to prevent blacks from eating in his restaurant, and it is also the home of prominent white supremacist J.B. Stoner.

So when Lucky Johnson and another worker complained to him, Moore said he took them to see his friend the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, the civil rights leader and former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Lowery suggested that the men contact a lawyer, so Moore referred them to Josie Alexander, who had experience with workplace discrimination cases.

Johnson claimed that he had been injured on the job and that Lockheed refused to pay disability, while the other worker said he was passed over for promotions that went to less-qualified whites.

As other workers found out the men were working with Alexander, more began speaking up. Within two months, as many as 40 current and former employees had come forward with similar complaints. They formed a group called Workers Against Discrimination and held demonstrations outside the plant, with local police rerouting traffic to give them room outside the main gate.

In April 1999, former F-22 program manager Tom Burbage took over as leader of the plant and made the first overt efforts to respond to the demonstrations. He wrote memos reminding workers that the plant would tolerate no discrimination or harassment. He met with individual employees, founded advisory groups and sent workers to diversity training. Still, those who were part of the Workers Against Discrimination group said Burbage's efforts made no difference in daily treatment and continued to complain.

Alexander turned to another lawyer, longtime friend Hezekiah Sistrunk, for help handling the flood of cases. And when Sistrunk was asked to open an Atlanta branch of Johnnie Cochran's law firm, he got the former O.J. Simpson defender involved in the case.

More than 65 Lockheed employees have since filed complaints with the EEOC, Alexander said. Last fall, the Atlanta EEOC office issued several findings that the company's hiring and promotion practices showed evidence of discriminating against blacks.

Lockheed offered to settle the EEOC complaints, but the lawyers for the workers rejected the deal and filed the two lawsuits, one on behalf of salaried employees and the other for hourly ones.

Lockheed's lawyers have asked the court to make an exception to the law prohibiting them from discussing the case. But in the meantime, the company has forbidden executives to respond in public to the workers' allegations--a restriction that leaves plant officials frustrated and struggling to comply.

"In general, when people say we ignore problems--nothing makes me angrier than when somebody says that," said Burbage. "I take personal exception to comments like that."

The Company Responds

In its court filings, the company argues that the alleged instances were misrepresented. In one case, for example, the black employee complaining that he was passed over for promotion failed to note that it was another African American who wound up getting the job, Lockheed said.

In another case, a woman claiming she was bypassed for a promotion had never applied for the position in question, the company said. And in yet another case, a black man failed to get a promotion not because of his race, the company said, but "because of a disciplinary history that includes, among other things, making loans to subordinate employees, knowingly providing false information during a company investigation, failing to follow procedure regarding work errors and possessing unauthorized equipment on company property."

Most of the allegations involve charges that black workers suffered in pay, promotions and training because of their race over a period dating back to 1996. The suits also describe a hostile racial environment, citing about half a dozen specific instances of harassment. According to the lawsuits, for example, employee Joseph Banks endured racial taunts from a supervisor and once found a noose left in his workplace.

Lockheed Martin responded that Banks's complaints had been addressed.

"When the supervisor's statements were reported, they were investigated immediately and the supervisor was demoted to a non-supervisory position with an attendant cut in pay," the company said.

The company acknowledged that a noose was found but said it was not located in Banks's work area, adding that "although the incident was investigated immediately and thoroughly, the investigators have not been able to determine who was responsible."

Other workers, though, say they know. Ted Gignilliat worked at the plant for more than 20 years before leaving at the end of March because of health reasons, and he said in an interview that he recalls at least six noose incidents.

Gignilliat, 52, who is white, said he also heard "the N-word" used countless times in the workplace. He said he had tolerated such behavior for many years, until a back injury caused him to realize what it felt like to be mistreated.

"I used to be one of the bad guys," he said. "I didn't mean to be. I didn't actively. But I didn't do anything about it. I know better now."

He said he began reporting the incidents to supervisors at Lockheed, providing the names of workers who had taunted blacks with nooses, then had to change his home phone number after receiving threats.

Gignilliat, who is pursuing his own claims against Lockheed related to his disability, said he offered to help lawyer Alexander gather evidence for the lawsuit.

"I became angry after I saw an article in the paper where people at Lockheed were saying stuff like 'That doesn't happen here.' I knew it was a baldfaced lie," he said.

Another former worker who came forward after reading about the lawsuit was Betty Gearing, 53, who worked on wings for the C-130 from 1978 to 1991. Gearing, who is black, said she was forced to ask for a hall pass every time she needed to use the restroom, even though other workers were not. Her supervisor often waited outside while she went, she said.

Racial slurs were common, she said. She remembered that once a co-worker left a Ku Klux Klan hood and membership papers on view in his tool box. When Gearing complained, she said, the man was ordered to sand the letters KKK off the box and to stop displaying the memorabilia. But she continued to feel intimidated by him.

In 1983, she said, her new Cadillac was regularly defaced in the parking lot with scratches. While she had a racist term sanded off the hood, Gearing said she eventually gave up and gave the car to her mother.

"You'd just try to work and forget it," she said, "but I don't think I'll ever forget it as long as I live."

A Different Kind of Case

The breadth of the allegations makes Lockheed Martin's case different from the race discrimination lawsuit settled recently in Atlanta against Coca-Cola, said Tyrone Brooks, a representative in the Georgia legislature and head of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials. The Coca-Cola suit was more confined to promotions and advancement and less about hostile treatment, he said.

"Coca-Cola would not tolerate the kinds of things you see happening at Lockheed, believe me," said Brooks, who said he spent years working with Jesse Jackson and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to promote workplace equality all around the country. "Lockheed is the worst that I've seen in corporate America. . . . The executives just simply will not admit the fact that they have a problem," he said.

Unable to call for a consumer boycott against a company that makes warplanes, lawyer Cochran said he plans to use political pressure to get at Lockheed's sources of funding on Capitol Hill.

"We're not going to go away, and when we're done, there's going to be a different corporate culture there," Cochran said in a recent interview.

Outsiders familiar with the situation say that Lockheed Martin executives are taking the matter very seriously but in some ways are more concerned about the potential for political trouble than the merits of the legal case, which they see as too flimsy to qualify as a true class action.

"When it broke, I know there was a lot of concern, given everything else that's happened with them," said Lambert, the industry consultant. "They were really moving aggressively to address this. They were putting a lot of people on it from the corporation, and they wanted to make sure it was resolved."

Corporate leaders held several high-level meetings with the workers' representatives before the lawsuits were filed. In April, scores of workers donned special T-shirts and hats and made the long bus trip to Houston for Lockheed Martin's annual shareholders meeting. The night before the meeting, plant leader Burbage and corporate chief executive Vance D. Coffman ate dinner with Lowery and asked him to address the shareholders the next day.

"I told them that Lockheed, which enjoyed so much work from the American people, [should] set an example to the American people about justice and fairness in all their operations. I challenged them to not only develop the F-22 but . . . to develop an F-2000 fairness and justice model for the rest of the corporate world," Lowery recalled.

The civil rights leader said he believes that upper management has good intentions. "The problem there, as it is in every corporate situation, is middle-level management," he said. "There has to be an intensified effort to be aware of what is going on all throughout the corporation. . . . I do believe we're going to see substantive change at Lockheed."

In fact, he added, such change already seems to be occurring. Burbage was recently promoted, and on July 1 the company installed former Rolls-Royce Allison executive Lee E. Rhyant, an African American, as the new manager of the Marietta plant.